The War in Vietnam was different than World War I or World War II. Many U.S. advisors did not understand the problems of fighting an insurgency. This was not like fighting a regular army in Europe. For example, many of these advisors failed to appreciate that if you “rescued” a village by destroying it you created a village of resisters rather than a village of supporters. Force had to be used effectively against a robust insurgency. The notion that the Americans must win the hearts and minds of the people was not a joke and was not to be taken lightly. It was vital to success against an insurgency. Yet very few American advisors understood how this could and could not be done.

One of the American military advisors that did understand these issues was John Paul Vann. Vann was a U.S. soldier who understood that the United States must not alienate the people. You could not shell a place with artillery because you might kill more women and children and in the process do more harm than good. You could only send in snipers to kill snipers. This is a lesson that may have been lost over the years.

The Americans had some unfortunate biases. For example, they assumed without much evidence to support it, that people in the cities were sympathetic to them and friendly to them, while all people in the countryside were Việt Cộng. In the villages it was actually very difficult to tell who was friendly and who was not. After all, the enemy did not wear identifiable uniforms or carry signs announcing their loyalties. That is how insurgencies and guerrilla wars work. That can be very challenging for a foreign power to deal with. Americans had problems with this in Iraq and Afghanistan as well.

If the Americans saw someone in a village that was running away from them, they quickly assumed that this must be an enemy combatant. Tran Ngoc Toan put it well, “If they killed 1 enemy there would be one replacement. If they killed the wrong man there would be 10 replacements. Usually they kill the wrong man.” That is how insurgencies work and why they can be extremely successful, well beyond their apparent capacity.

Wars have to be fought with more than military might. They have to be fought with brains.


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